Friday, February 8, 2013

Writing Church Correspondence

Yesterday I posted about being leery of the information given on a headstone. My advice is to always seek documentation. Use the headstone as a hint and seek out death certificates, obituaries, and church records.

Today I want to address church records and the deep gratitude I have to religious institutions that share their records in whatever format. 

Yesterday I mentioned that as soon as I learned that my 3rd great grandparents, Lawrence and Bridget Fay were interned in the cemetery at St. Mary of the Snow in Saugerties, New York, I contacted the church. I found their phone number online and placed a call to their church office. The phone call allowed me to confirm the church's mailing address, obtain the name of a contact person, inquire as to if they had records, how far back their records dated, and if their was a required fee or recommended donation associated with making a search request.

In my experience, churches are often happy to share the information they have and more often then not they have information.  Sometimes you get a church that is unresponsive, usually due to a lack of staffing or an absence of records. Some churches will tell you outright that records do not exist; often because of fires in the past.  

Typically there is a fee required. Sometimes the fees are exorbitant as has been my experience with Catholic cemeteries but churches usually only suggest or request a nominal fee; say $10.

If there is not a fee, I strongly recommend you make a donation when you request that the church staff search their registers. Often institutions charge a fee because searching requires time and energy from an often limited staff. Just because one institution is not charging a fee does not mean they aren't in need of a little financial support to help them maintain their resources and staff.It is also very likely that you will have to deal with the same institution in the future as you discover more information about relatives who may have also been members of the same congregation. Make friends.

Usually a church will require the request be made in writing. Constructing the request letter is the hardest part. You want to be as specific as possible about what you know already know and what you want to find out. However, you also want to know every hint the church records might hold for you and your research if the church is willing to share extra info. State that! a nice concise note.

If you have the name of a contact, use it formally or use "To Whom It May Concern:"
Dear Ms. Smith,
State your business in detail. Start by mentioning if you have had previous contact.

As per our conversation on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, I am writing to request a marriage record.
Include full names, exact dates or as best estimated dates.

I believe my great grandparents were married at St. Monica’s Church in June of 1918. Their names were James Aloysius Fay and Mary Prince.
Acknowledge any uncertainties that you may have regarding your information.

The exact day of their marriage was either June 2 or June 7 in 1918.
Because you are not looking at the registers yourself, kindly request a desire to know any additional information the researcher might find, and your willingness pay additional fees if necessary.
I believe my family was active members of your church from 1900 to about 1925. I would be very interested to know if you come across any other individuals with the last name Fay, Faye, Prinz, or Prince during the course of your research. I would be delighted to pay  additional fees for the extra information you find.
Sometimes the research will find something and let you know. 
Acknowledge any donation of fee you are including in the envelope.

 Enclosed you will find a check for $10 made payable to the Church of Saint Monica.
And close kindly.
 Thank you so much for your time and attention to my inquiry,
Within days of the request I made to The Church of St. Mary of the Snow in Saugerties, I received a two page letter back disclosing several family internments and baptisms. The secretary there, Sandra, shared with me information she found that she thought my be pertinent to my research. For example she wrote:
"There was a notation of the following: Elizabeth born July 10, 1852.
"Parents: Michael Fay and Fanny Butler.
"Sponsors: James Byrne and Bridget Fay.

"Perhaps this was a brother to Lawrence?"
This was not information I requested. It was not information she needed to share with me. I have, however, stumbled across other mentions of a Michael Fay in the area who I suspect may have been Lawrence's older brother. Here we see a Bridget Fay serving as a godmother to the daughter of a Michael Fay. Hmm. Sandra has put me on the case to learn more about the family of Michael Fay and Fanny Butler-Fay.

Thanks, Sandra!

Don't you hesitate to contact religious institutions for their assistance in your research. Regardless of your religious beliefs or affiliations such organizations hold records about your ancestors. Don't ignore these repositories, be grateful for what they are able to share.

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